The Most Real Thing: Learning About His Lies After His Death and What Came After

When he died, it woke me up. 

Love was saccharine romance novels (but Christian ones, where you wear promise rings and save yourself for marriage). Michael had believed in the god of Albert Camus and attended the church of Tom Waits. “Chocolate Jesus is the only Christ I care about,” he had texted me one morning. 

We met on Tinder while I was staying in Atlanta with my parents. I thought he was so cool. He rode a motorcycle and smoked cigarettes. He had scars on his hands and on his face and had recently come back from doing humanitarian work in Somalia. I was a recovering Christian good girl back from the “mission field”, weary and unsure.

When he first touched me that night in the bar it was like a bolt of lightning, exhilarating but painfully so. Every inch of our skin that touched carried the same current. It was overwhelming and unsustainable. I thought I loved him even though it was only weeks that we were together. I left for New York still dreaming about him at night and writing poems about him in the morning, playing every moment back in my mind.

Then he died 3 months later, and nothing was what I thought it was. 

I found out he had a girlfriend, for one thing. A long term girlfriend he had been with for years, who he loved and who wrote to me to tell me I couldn’t begin to understand what she was going through and that I didn’t deserve to know how he died. I was ashamed in a way I had never experienced, but more than that I was grieved by the loss of him and the loss of what I had felt between us.

I cried for him and for me, and I talked to God more then than I ever had in my life. I listened to Tom Waits everyday and I read Camus for the first time. I went back through every text he had ever sent me. I checked his obituary page constantly trying to find out everything I could about him. The things I knew about him grew dimmer and had less substance. My memories slipped from me like sand running through my fingers. When I returned to Atlanta a few weeks later for Thanksgiving, I drove to his apartment, sat in my car and cried while listening to “Love, Love, Love” by The Mountain Goats. He had played that song for me while we sat in his bed and he kissed me. It felt concrete, that memory. I read through all his texts again; the texts where he said he had never felt this way before; the texts where he begged to me to stay; the texts I would lose in 6 months when my phone broke.

A year later I found out the cause of his death was a drug overdose, suicide probably, but no one knew for sure. By that time I had had my heart broken in new profound ways and had been on two dates with a boy who was too kind for it to be real. I felt jaded and old. But I forgave Michael then. I remembered him sweetly as my first of many things. I kept him tucked away in a corner of my heart and would pull him out from time to time to reflect on what was good, but the dark truth of it always clung on.

I remembered how it felt when he first touched me, but that was false in many ways. Was it really him? Or was it that I was so lonely then? Or was it that I had never really been touched before? I remembered him as kind, but didn’t he pressure me to come back to his apartment, to stay the night? It’s not that I hadn’t wanted to do those things, but hadn’t I been unsure? And hadn’t he known that? I remembered him as genuine, but that wasn’t really true either. His girlfriend made sure I knew that. I remembered him as being present, of really seeing me, but he was also high on fentanyl. I hated him then, thinking of all the ways he had lied to me. And I hated myself for believing him. 

It was a therapist who told me that everything could have been a complete and total lie, but that doesn’t mean my feelings, our feelings, weren’t true. And of course, that is exactly right. But then how are we supposed to trust our feelings? It was another year before I understood that what is true and what is not are irrevocably intertwined. That love and grief will always mingle with one another. That things can be so fucked up, but totally beautiful at the same time.

I learned this by having patience with my heart. I learned this by going to the movies alone and by adopting a cat. I learned this by getting a prescription to Lexapro. I learned this by reading books about grief and books about love and books about everything else. I learned this by finally figuring out how to take care of my plants and finally figuring out how to take care of myself.

It was 2 years to the day of his death, and I was walking across Central Park on the brightest autumn day. The leaves were so beautiful, yellow and orange and red. I kept pausing to look up at them. I listened to Tom Waits, and I let the grief wash over me. Autumn meant winter was coming soon. The color of the leaves meant that they were dying. I remembered less and less about Michael, or less and less that felt real and true. But I felt glad then too. Glad that I had known him. Glad for what I had felt then. Glad most of all for what I felt now.

I continued through the park and across the street to the apartment of the boy who had been too kind for it to be real. It turns out, it had been real, and I, the recipient of this kindness, felt the truth of it in my mind, my heart, my body. I trusted him, yes but even more, I trusted myself. That is the most real thing.